The Good: Good acting, interesting plot, themes, Some elements of character
The Bad: Character sleight of hand falls through
The Basics: While sometimes long and ponderous, the tale of obsession in The Prestige makes the film more than a simple magic show.
When I was in college, one of my favorite professors, who was himself a student of Melville’s works, shared with me that the most true adaptation his mentor had found of Moby Dick in the cinema was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (reviewed here!). It makes sense, I suppose if one views Khan as Ahab and Captain Kirk as the white whale. I suppose next time I run into William Shatner at a convention I ought to ask him how he feels about being the white whale. I have the urge, after seeing The Prestige to contact my former professor and ask him if that – the Trek movie as superior Moby Dick transposition – is still true.
Robert Angier and Alfred Borden are magicians who start out as assistants to another magician and his technical wizard, Cutter. When Alfred’s pursuit of a magic trick accidentally kills Angier’s wife, Robert and Alfred have a falling out. Through a series of events, Angier shoots Alfred, Alfred sabotages Angier’s new routine. Cutter eventually offers Angier a chance to perform again, while Alfred pursues a family. Angier’s career is sabotaged again by Alfred, who develops a trick called the transported man, which Angier cannot figure out and he becomes obsessed with possessing. His obsession causes him to journey to America, forsake his relationships, and puts him on a collision course with Alfred that will change both their lives.
The thing about The Prestige is that, as educated movie viewers and people who are watching a movie on magic, we are waiting for the reversals, the tricks. This anticipation makes us ready for almost everything that comes our way. And The Prestige does not disappoint . . . for the most part.
Robert Angier begins the story as the less interesting of the two protagonists. Angier seems less clever and less intriguing than the moody, adept Alfred. His obsession with besting Alfred makes him into the more interesting character as the movie progresses and his character’s resolution makes the movie worth watching. His journey to see Tesla is compelling and the results of that trip are clever and reveal the true depth of his devotion to his art.
Amidst that, there is still Alfred. Alfred’s trick, the transported man, is supposed to intrigue the viewer. Angier becomes obsessed with how Alfred is doing the trick, which even Cutter cannot figure out. The thing is, The Prestige gives the viewers the answer, but far too late. By the time Alfred’s secrets are revealed, the viewer does not care, we’re far more invested in Angier’s story. Indeed, when the revelation came, my reaction honestly was, “I had forgotten to care about how he was doing his trick.” Angier’s story is so much more captivating than Alfred’s, especially by that point.
The net result is a film out of balance. No doubt director Christopher Nolan and his co-writers Jonathan Nolan and novelist Christopher Priest wanted to keep the viewer engaged and guessing up until the end. When the viewers fail to care about guessing about how Alfred does his masterpiece trick, the writers and director fall short of their goal.
Where they cannot be faulted is in the acting. Nolan once again utilizes Christian Bale and Michael Caine, with Hugh Jackman taking the lead. Scarlett Johansson is also highly billed in The Prestige, though her role is far less integral. Indeed, the role of Johansson as Olivia appears more as a plot support than anything organic on the character front. It is hard to see her purpose other than to help reveal . . . well, the prestige (the magical term whose jargon is explained at the beginning of the movie). The shining cameos come from Andy Serkis and David Bowie as Nikola Tesla.
Michael Caine does a decent job as Cutter, though the role does not challenge him significantly. Caine is essentially playing the same role he played in Batman Begins (reviewed here!), the supporting guide. Caine does the role well, but those looking for a star performance by Caine that expands his repertoire will be disappointed.
Christian Bale does a decent job as Alfred, though there are some limitations to the character that make it difficult to judge Bale’s acting. Bale is playing a quiet, moody magician whose big failure is one of showmanship. In that way, Bale excels, creating the character with a credibility that is undeniable; Alfred is at once dull to watch and almost unforgettable.
It is Hugh Jackman as Angier who rules the day. Angier’s story of obsession is masterfully played by Jackman. Jackman plays Angier unlike anyone else we have seen him portray and that is refreshing. It is the definintion of a fine actor and here Jackman makes the performance distinct and his own.
Recently I panned The Illusionist (reviewed here!) and I’m pleased to say The Prestige is a much better, much more original, choice for those looking to be entertained.
For other works with Scarlett Johansson, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Iron Man 2
He’s Just Not That Into You
The Perfect Score
The Girl With A Pearl Earring
Lost In Translation
For other movie reviews, please be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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